Rose pruning: a little work for a great reward

Hello and welcome to my first blog post! I am so excited to share my passion for roses and gardening. The goal of this blog is to be a continual source of rose growing information and inspiration. Your questions are important, so please let me know what you'd like to know about roses. I want this blog to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, so your collaboration and input are greatly appreciated. To submit a question, simply comment below and we'll be sure to answer. As you follow along, you will see that I'm a rather unconventional gardener who does what works for her through curiosity, trial and error. There is no right or wrong way to grow plants and I'm always looking for ways to make my roses happier. I'm looking forward to this new blogging journey and sincerely appreciate your support!

It's January in California and that means rose pruning time! To be honest, up until recently I've always dreaded pruning, not because of the work involved, but because it meant stripping my roses down to naked canes and the lack of beauty in my garden. It was only recently that I've learned to look at pruning as a period of rejuvenation - a new beginning for my plants. All of my mistakes from the previous season are wiped away, giving me a new palette to work from for the coming season. If we didn't prune our roses, we wouldn't have a magnificent spring flush with flawless foliage and fluffy blooms, so a little work is worth it. We all need rest in order to refresh, and our roses are no exception! When choosing an image to accompany this post, I thought these fluffy Evelyn roses were the ideal choice since they are that perfect "great reward" from the work of pruning!

Here at our rose farm, pruning is just part of our rose care routine during the dormant season and over the coming weeks I'll share what we do to prepare our roses for spring. So why do we prune our roses? The goal of rose pruning is to remove all dead, unproductive and diseased wood on the rose so the plant will push new growth to the healthiest canes. Each year when we prune our roses we're given an opportunity to bring vigor and beauty to the plant. To get the job done, you need just a few tools from our Amazon Storefront:

  • Pruners: We use Felco F-2 bypass pruners as well as Felco 100 pruners. Felcos are a great investment for anyone wanting to grow roses and they will last you a lifetime if you take care of them. The guys who work at our farm use Felco F-2 pruners to cut thousands of stems each week and then they use their same pair of Felcos during our dormant season to prune. My personal preference are the Felco 100 pruners because they hold onto the stem after you cut it, which means you can cut roses and prune your roses one handed. No bending down to pickup fallen canes. Perfect for the slightly lazy gardener!
  • Loppers: These are my favorite lightweight loppers from Felco. They're easy for women to handle and slice through old wood needing to be removed with very little effort.
  • Pruning Gloves: We love these gloves and have never had a thorn get through them. These are also great rose pruning gloves in synthetic leather I personally wear since they're cruelty-free (order up a size as they run small). No matter which gloves you use, make sure your forearms are protected from thorns.
  • Dormant Spray: We use a combination of copper and horticultural oil for organic dormant spraying. Chapin makes high quality garden sprayers for home gardeners. 

    In addition to the items above, you should have a trash can, rake and whatever gardening tool you prefer to pull weeds around the base of your roses.

    I'm going to preface this tutorial by saying "it's really hard (or impossible) to kill a rose by pruning." Last winter when we were preparing to transplant 5,000 roses to our new farm we literally took a chainsaw to our roses. Yes, a chainsaw! Granted, we were moving and had to very quickly cut them down in order to transport them (hence the chainsaw) and we gave them a proper pruning once they were in their new home, but even if we hadn't pruned them, they would have been just fine. Please do not take a chainsaw to your roses, however us doing so proves it's really hard to kill roses. People tell me time and again how afraid they are to prune their roses. In reality, there is no right or wrong way to prune and how much one removes from their plants is up to them. I've seen people cut their roses back to 6" from the ground and others leave 3' canes. Some gardeners leave three canes, some leave nine. The most important thing to consider when pruning is this: leave as much wood on the plant as you wish, so long as it is healthy. This means if a part of your rose looks diseased, unproductive, damaged, spindly or otherwise questionable, remove it. Leave only the best looking canes (wood) on your roses so the plant sends all it's stored energy to healthy canes and buds once it wakes from dormancy. Here are some tips:

    • By the time pruning season comes, our roses are massive. We like to cut off all the top growth from our plants before we get into pruning. Our video explains this process, but basically it means removing the height from the plants so we can see what we're working with. It doesn't matter how/where you make these cuts. Just remove all the "octopus arms" so you can see the bottom 3' or so of your plants.
    • If a cane is thinner than a pencil, remove it.
    • If a cane is crossing over/behind another cane through the middle of the plant, remove it.
    • If you have two canes really close to one another that may rub into one another on a windy day, remove the thinner of the two.
    • Use your loppers to cut out the oldest, unproductive wood near the crown of the rose. Generally we use our loppers for any canes more than 1" wide.
    • When standing over your rose after pruning, it should appear that the center of the plant is open. Canes should move outward forming the sun or spokes so the inside of the plant is free of crossing canes. It may take a couple of years to get your rose to have a nice shape, so don't worry if it doesn't happen the first time you prune. The most important thing is to keep the center of your plants open and airy - the health of your roses will depend on it later in the season!
    • Thoroughly clean your rose's bed by raking debris and pulling weeds. Do not leave any leaf or cane debris on the ground as pests and disease will overwinter and cause BIG problems in the spring. Always give your roses a nice, clean and level bed before you mulch. Rose clippings should never be used in mulch or compost. They must be bagged and hauled away or burned. We will do a blog and video on mulching soon!
    • Once your roses are pruned and all leaf/cane debris is removed from the rose's bed, apply your dormant spray per the instructions on the bottles. Copper will treat disease and horticultural oil kills insects and overwintering eggs (ewwwww).

    When to prune roses? Pruning should be done in January/February in warmer climates (zones 8-10) and early spring or after the last frost in colder climates (zones 5-7). If you live in a cold climate pruning roses is simple: just cut back the canes that were killed in winter.

    This video shows how we prune our roses at the farm - all 15,000 of them! For those wondering, it takes six people about a month to prune our roses, including pulling all the weeds and raking up what seems like an endless amount of debris. It's a job I'm so thankful to have willing and able hands to do the majority of the work. As you begin pruning, remember it may take you several years to get a nice shape from your roses and there is no right or wrong way to prune. You will not kill your roses by pruning them, in fact, they will come back healthier than ever with a good chop (sounds like hair, right? This is coming from the girl who won't cut her hair, ha!). Be artistic in how you shape your plants and enjoy the process - your roses will thank you for it!

    My next blogs will be on planting bare root roses, frost protection, mulching and spring feeding. What else do you want to see covered here? xo